My brother called at 12:02 p.m. We always text during the day, so the initial question in my mind was Mom or Dad?
Instead, he quite unsteadily said, “Uh…hey…Google…Prince.”
My heart took a nosedive before I’d finished typing his name. There were a bunch of sketchy, and I hoped, hoaxy-looking news links from sites I’d never heard of that were hours old. But one small link in the upper left corner had been there only 13 minutes. It was TMZ so I immediately dismissed it, even as I was haunted by the eerie memory that TMZ had also broken the news about Michael Jackson.
I gripped the armrests of my chair. I didn’t want to break down at my desk around my coworkers. But a flood of emotions swelled up in me so quickly and violently I almost passed out.
I sat numb, shell-shocked and heartbroken, clicking link after link looking for the one that revealed it was a hoax. Or even a tweet from Prince himself. As the hours passed, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to his music. Even though I had every song of his and then some in my phone, I couldn’t figure out what to play first.
Prince was the genius whose music and influence colored most of my life.
My friends started texting and emailing their condolences to me like I knew him. My mom called to check on me. My senior year roommate emailed she had never heard of Prince before she met me. It was all quite bizarre, because I was still waiting on that hoax article. What I saw instead was a picture of him in the rain during his amazing Super Bowl half-time show—a picture I’d seen hundreds of times before—with his birth and death dates.
So I guess I have to believe it.
But I know I don’t have to accept it.
Crazy memories of Prince moments in my life started shooting at me like a malfunctioning T-shirt gun.
The Hit & Run Tour concert four days after gallbladder surgery where I busted several stitches from dancing. My brother kept saying, “Please sit down.” Mom had asked, as only a concerned parent could, “Are you still planning to go to that?” After I finished looking at her like she’d smoked something illegal, I answered, “I didn’t die!”
You see, Prince was my musical soul mate (from here on he’s the artist I’ll refer to my MSM). And you do things for love of a soul mate. Surgery be damned.
I always knew he was my MSM, but I never put it into words until someone asked me the seemingly important, but actually kind of dumb question, Michael or Prince?
After a long moment, I said, “Michael is my first love. Prince is my soul mate.”
“What!?” The person whom I don’t remember screamed.
I didn’t and never will understand why it had to be one or the other. They were different artists. They gave me different things. They each covered very distinct periods in my life. At the risk of dating myself, my very first record—a 45 (look it up kids)—when I was an R&B loving five-year-old was the Jackson Five’s ABC. And there I met MJ, my schoolgirl crush, my first love. I went from wishing I were the girl he wanted back, to my cousins turning me into a dancing machine robot in my aunt’s living room. Because of him, I wore penny loafers in high school and one glove (in defiance of Mom’s direct order to “stop it”) no matter what the temperature. I probably scuffed a couple of floors with my attempts to Moonwalk. He got me through my girlhood.
Prince was there. He sneaked up behind me like I was Apollonia looking through the department store window in Purple Rain, but with less leather. He lurked in the background, tempting me with his Dirty Mind, making me wonder “what is this controversial Soft and Wet he speaks of?” before I had ever partied like it was 19-anything. He made me want to get on a plane and see what a floatation device was really about.
MJ came to Kansas City with the Jacksons for the Victory tour and I saw them in concert on Saturday, July 7, 1984. I was enjoying my last summer before entering college to study (damn, I’m dating myself all over this story), of all things, music. I went with my brother, mom, closest friend (and rival for MJ’s affections) and my aunt, who—my brother reminded me yesterday—had somehow skirted the rules and obtained five tickets in spite of the four-ticket limit. I had never seen anything like it. MJ had been blowing my mind on television for years, but in person—just the memory makes me tingle. They sailed through all the hits I’d grown up with, music that shaped my childhood and gave me fairytale hopes and dreams about romance. That dancing. Umm. MJ was all grown up after Off the Wall and Thriller. It was the only time I ever saw him perform live, with my mom in tow, chaperoning my one and only date with my first love. And even with all that rich music history between us, I needed something…more.
Exactly 20 days later, on July 27, Purple Rain was released.
And that’s where I left MJ.
Purple Rain. That was the first time I’d ever spent almost an entire weekend in a theater. I couldn’t settle down. Couldn’t stop vibrating. Prince’s music, while not new to me, had suddenly hit me at my core. Everything about it touched every part of my body and spirit. No matter what the tempo, my body ached to move, longed to be touched. Every beat felt like my own heartbeat. As if that wasn’t enough, his words, the sheer depth of his poetry made my mind explode. Every song. Every time. What I know now is that he gave us volumes and volumes of the purest poetry and he set it to breathtaking harmonies. I couldn’t sleep, partially excited for the next day when I could see the movie again…and again. But I was mostly awake because the soundtrack played loudly all night from the ridiculously large boom box on my bedroom floor.
A few weeks later that soundtrack played in the car as my family drove me to college, and subsequently every trip back and forth for the entire first year. Every. Trip.
My new friends observed early on that my favorite color also was purple (that was all me, not Prince), and because of my last name, baptized me “Purple Rainey.” Some of them shortened it to “Puuuuuuurple!” A moniker I still answer to. My first three years I had a private basement dorm room where I had only one actual white light bulb over my study desk. All the rest of the lights in the room were black lights—some aimed directly on posters of Prince.
My keyboards and stereo were set up so I could “perform” live Prince shows every night. My friends would show up, get comfortable and watch me burn through my Prince sets. I even did Sheila E, playing my imaginary drum set with my actual sticks. I had different audiences every night, so I kept the set list loose, ready for anything. They often requested The Beautiful Ones and Darling Nikki. I had a friend who loved Prince just as much. He sort of resembled him and regularly asked me to put eyeliner on him then he’d practice his smoldering looks in my bathroom mirror. I was a nightmare to everyone on my dorm room floor and probably above. The volume on my keyboards and stereo were set to MAX from sun up until quiet hours at 11 p.m. I’d like to apologize now to my former neighbors…if I was actually sorry. Prince was a movement. And I’m not sorry I was on it.
Different Prince songs punctuated my crappy college love life. I changed the lyrics of Raspberry Berét and walked around campus singing, “he wore an or-range polo,” about a cute Canadian boy. After I realized he never looked at me twice, I spent a summer singing and customizing the lyrics to Condition of the Heart. To this day I still see his cute, dumbass face when I hear either song. Mr. Eyeliner used to sing International Lover to me and get me all soft and wet hot and bothered before he hooked up with some flat-chested chick on the floor above me, ruining that song for several years.
I was a junior when Sign O’ the Times was released. I got up early, drove twenty minutes to Lawrence, Kan., to buy it so I’d have it for my DJ shift on the campus radio station that morning. I made the ill-advised decision to play tracks I had yet to listen to. Of course, these were the days when his lyrics were a little more colorful. The song It played while I listened to snippets of other cuts, trying to decide what to play next when my DJ partner gasped. “Did you hear that?” Just one casual F-word before the song began to fade. I snatched the needle off the disc and decided to stick to the classic track I already knew, Sign O’ the Times, until I could give the songs a better listen.
I had gone to school to study the old masters, Mozart, Bach, and my favorite, Beethoven. I did actually study, although I’m not sure how with all the loudness and black lights. And up until that point, most of my musical background was as a church musician. While I loved classical and gospel music, none of that was ever really me. Neither was in my soul. I didn’t see either genre in my performing future. I grew agitated whenever working on one or the other interfered with my MSM, the master I was really studying.
Classical was all rules and theory, and I was burned out being stuck to a piano bench during church. My MSM made my musical mind grow, teaching me to learn the rules so that I could be comfortable breaking them. Dissonant chords didn’t have to be dark and dirge-like. They could be haunting, flirty and very sexy. He made me love simple melodies and big, full instrumentation. When Doves Cry—Who needs a bass line? I graduated and went from playing in church to playing in clubs. Prince taught me to listen and pay attention to every sound in my day, because music was in everything. Prince made music fun for me in a way it never was and hasn’t been since. I learned through him that music could be grown and sexy.
His music was always in my hair.
I checked in from time to time, as we all do, with my schoolgirl crush to see how he was doing. But I was so enraptured by Prince that I was okay leaving MJ where he was—secured where first loves should remain, in my heart. I was musically coupled-up with Prince.
The only person I ever saw Prince shows with was my brother. We had a deal and an understanding. He knew and respected my deep love, and his love for him was almost as strong, even though MJ was his MSM. There were no questions asked. Whatever was on our schedules was cleared. We didn’t invite friends to go with us because we didn’t want to deal with people scraping money together by the sale date. For Prince, you had to be ready to GO.
Several concerts after the busted-stitches show, I joined Prince’s infamous NPG Music Club, which promised perks and better seats, just in time for his One Night Alone Tour. My perks for that 2002 show included seats on the second row. Prince’s guitars were in stands on the floor less than 10 feet away. I would have touched them had his big burly guard not been watching, waiting for me to do just that.
And we got to go to sound check.
Club members filed into KC’s Midland Theatre. Prince stood at the edge of the stage as we took our seats so close to him. His smile was bright and his skin flawless. Every hair in place. And in my mind, he wasn’t wearing a shirt, but I think I’m confusing that with a video. He held a cordless mic as he leaned on the mic stand and talked to us. It was too difficult to walk and stare at him at the same time and my brother actually tripped when we turned into our row. Prince laughed and said, “Careful now. I ain’t got no insurance.”
We were treated to a break-neck 90-minute Q&A chat and private concert. He played snippets of songs he would play at the concert later that night, and he treated us to full versions of some deep cuts that didn’t make the set list, including my favorite of the deep cuts—Joy in Repetition. He was open and personable and hilarious. And genius. He stopped his horn section mid-song to fix a timing issue. It took all of a minute and I noted they played it perfectly later. I told my brother my band would have spent three weeks working that out and come show time, we still would have jacked it up. I would have been perfectly content if that was my last night on earth, but then I would have missed his last show in Kansas City.
The last time Prince came to KC was for 2004’s Musicology Tour. Music club benefits still in effect, I picked up my tickets at the box office that morning. When I opened the ticket envelope, my seats were on the front row! I. Could. Not. Breathe. Those seats effectively ruined me for every concert forever. I called my family and friends, screaming at them the high-pitched inaudible ramblings of a crazed Prince fan.
The show was a frenzied, spirited, straight-up party. School was in session. Prince and the New Power Generation, in the rarest form, lit us up with rock, blues and his hard-driving signature funk. He simultaneously blessed us when he dug up another hit from his catalog, and infuriated us when he moved on to something else after a few bars. He had too many hits, and we wanted to hear them all. I spent many years as a student-athlete and gym rat, but I never sweat more than I did that night. That was the hardest I ever danced.
The memories kept coming, but my grip on the armrests had eased. The hoax confirmation never came. And his Twitter feed remained static. His iconic, poignant and all-too-appropriate-now lyrics kept slapping my sad face. Sometimes it snows in April. This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
I decided not to choose which song to start with. I went to my SiriusXM app and Let’s Go Crazy found me, which was appropriate, because that was what was happening. After a few moments I found myself trying to do the choreography while sitting at my desk, which proved to be problematic. The tears stung my eyes. I had to go outside and deal with the fact that my musical soul mate was gone.
But that’s the cool thing about souls. They don’t die. And neither does love. They go on forever, like all this luscious music he left here for us. Thank you, Prince.
Love is too weak to define just what you mean to me.